Defense of the Easily Defensible
By Dave Markland
In 2018 Haymarket Books published Rohini Hensman’s Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-revolution and Anti-imperialist Rhetoric. Its focus is on left journalists and analysts like John Pilger and the late Edward S. Herman who have committed the inexcusable sin of being overly suspicious of United States foreign policy. Many readers are no doubt aware that attacks upon these and other left critics of US foreign policy are quite common, though they typically come from right-wing quarters. Nevertheless a vigorous and honest assessment of these intellectuals (or any others) could be quite valuable. However, those seeking a deep and careful analysis coupled with robust argument will be entirely disappointed. Hensman is scarcely qualified to accuse anyone of poor research methods or faulty reasoning, as the book is rife with attacks having hardly any basis in evidence.
Take for instance the supposed takedown of journalist Patrick Cockburn. Readers may be surprised to see that name included among the book’s rogues gallery of “pseudo-anti-imperialists” since he is in fact an admired foreign correspondent and a broadly respected specialist on Iraq and ISIS among other topics. Yet, despite Cockburn’s large and widely-admired body of work, Hensman claims to chop him off at the knees with just one sentence:
“Patrick Cockburn misrepresents an Amnesty report of atrocities by Islamists in Aleppo and Idlib governorates, in order to pretend that ‘groups linked to Al-Qaeda had a monopoly on the supply of news from East Aleppo’ city, and downplays the massacres carried out by Assad and his allies.” (Hensman, 273)
Parsing that single, allegedly fatal, sentence it seems Cockburn’s crimes are: 1) He somehow “misrepresents” an Amnesty International report in claiming that Al-Qaeda-linked groups were monopolizing the news feeds from East Aleppo; and 2) he “downplays” massacres. But since, quite amazingly, the single source cited in this attack is Cockburn’s own article in the London Review of Books (February 2, 2017), and since Hensman offers exactly no correction to Cockburn’s alleged downplaying, claim 2 is completely baseless. How can Cockburn’s own writing be cited as evidence of his downplaying anything if you will not tell us where and how it is he does it? The accuser must show us where he in fact does this and how it constitutes downplaying. Has this elementary fact eluded Hensman?
Claim 1 fares no better. While Cockburn does indeed discuss the Amnesty report and does indeed assert that Al Qaeda types dominated news reporting from inside east Aleppo, the two facts are unrelated. In fact, Cockburn’s own reporting from Beirut in December 2016, in two separate dispatches, focused on the reality for journalists on the ground in the Syrian war. Yes, a very simple Google search would have clarified that Cockburn had no need to cite an Amnesty report, erroneously or otherwise, to make claims about the reporting environment in Aleppo because he himself had written about that very thing for the Independent, and which is still featured on their website. (See Independent, December 2 and 16, 2016.) Hensman, who would of course be free to evaluate that journalism on its merits, appears however to not even know it exists.
Since Hensman’s stated reasons for despising Cockburn are so flimsy on their face, it is wise to surmise that something else is afoot. What is happening of course is that Cockburn is challenging cherished doctrines, for the fury aimed at him is due to his suggestion that Al Qaeda affiliates might dominate the beloved Syrian rebel forces. The related question, that of the likely effects of US military intervention in favour of the rebels, is one that needs suppressing. After all it is more difficult to advocate, as Hensman does, for regime change in Syria when the potential new regime is likely to revere Osama Bin Laden rather than George Washington. Hensman is far from alone in the effort to suppress, dismiss and ridicule the copious evidence for those claims, rather than address them honestly.
As with the brief and brutal dismissing of Cockburn without the bother of fact-checking, Hensman is comfortable with savagely smearing the likes of longtime Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk without even reading his allegedly odious journalism. Instead, according to the bibliography, she relies entirely on journalist Janine di Giovanni (Janine di Giovanni, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, W.W. Norton 2015).* Said work features a bitter falsification of Fisk’s reporting, which did not however prevent it from earning journalism awards.
Di Giovanni, the centrepiece of whose book is adapted from her harrowing Washington Post reports from the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Darayya in Syria, employs the skill of a surgeon in fabricating a charge against Fisk–a charge that Hensman parrots (and exaggerates) in Indefensible. It is worth looking at di Giovanni’s case before returning to our subject. What angers di Giovanni so much is precisely this: She did not like the words that Fisk heard when he, as the first Western observer to enter Darayya after the battle, went off-leash and spoke with Syrian civilians unsupervised by his army escorts. And so she conjures an image of Fisk speaking with locals before the very eyes of the Syrian government forces. To do this, however, requires that one remove a few words from a quotation to make it read like its opposite.
While di Giovanni quotes long passages of Fisk’s original 1000-word report amounting to over 300 words, she somehow fails to include a scant few which give vital context. Describing his efforts to get away from his escorts, Fisk writes: “Yet we could talk to civilians out of earshot of Syrian officials – in two cases in the security of their own homes …” (See Robert Fisk, Independent, August 29, 2012). With these key words so studiously ignored, di Giovanni can launch the invented claim that “perhaps the two people he interviewed told him what the soldiers around him wanted to hear” (di Giovanni, 68-69). In fact, as his report makes clear, those interviewees were, in Fisk’s journalistic judgement, speaking their minds.
In Indefensible, Hensman takes di Giovanni’s fabrication and exaggerates it, asserting that Fisk was taking testimony “in the hearing of Assad’s soldiers” (Hensman, 272). Di Giovanni instead wrote (misleadingly) that soldiers were “around” Fisk and thus Fisk’s interviewees likely would have been intimidated. Such is Hensman’s assassination of Fisk: second hand, slap-dash vilification which supposedly merits the assessment that Fisk’s late career (along with that of Seymour Hersh) is “sad” on account of “covering up massacres in Syria” (273).
It should be noted that di Giovanni continued the crusade against fellow-journalist Fisk in a manner which reveals much about award-winning reporters. Evidently seeing red at mere mention of his name, di Giovanni’s rage reached absurd and troubling heights when she took to Twitter to declare that Fisk “should consider a seat at the war crimes tribunal alongside Assad and Putin” (April 16, 2018). Needless to say, the Committee to Protect Journalists did not retweet di Giovanni’s call for a journalist to be tried as a war criminal for committing journalism. Interestingly the tweet passed by the commentariat like a tumbleweed, earning only 85 retweets and 129 likes from her roughly 10,000 followers. In terms of Washington Post reporters and their milieu, this treatment–utter silence–is considered an appropriate response to paranoid rantings. Rather like one ignores occasional outbreaks of flatulence which strike a beloved elder at the holiday dinner table. While such a stunt would sink the career of any rising journalist who follows the path of Fisk or Cockburn, it matters not for di Giovanni’s trajectory. Indeed it may well be a career booster as it signals an ability and willingness to suppress unwelcome truths, a major part of the job expectations for those in the establishment media.
Returning to Hensman’s accusations, the book’s opening attack is an egregious hatchet job that would make Jason Voorhees wince. Its mark is former Guardian columnist Seamus Milne, a very important target since he left that paper to become an adviser to the hated Jeremy Corbyn. At issue is a 2015 Guardian column by Milne (“Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq,” June 3, 2015) which deals with the then-recent release of a declassified US Department of Defense intelligence report from 2012. That document, by an unknown author writing before the emergence of the Islamic State, discusses the likely rise of something very much like the Islamic State. Milne in his analysis says the report’s author “essentially welcomes” the foreseen coming of the Islamic State Caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq as a counterweight to the Syrian government’s oppositional stance. Hensman takes up this assertion and mocks it, along the way portraying Milne as soft in the head and prone to believe anything if it besmirches the name of the United States. Then she goes in for the kill and thusly rebuts–indeed, supposedly debunks–Milne:
“Yet the document actually says the following: ‘If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria … The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows’ (etc.)” (10) But wait, wait, wait, wait. What is in those ellipses? You know, the three dots that let Hensman skip over some of the words in the original intelligence report which she is quoting. Could those suggestive dots by any chance edit out the very words that Milne cited in his piece and which are crucial to his assessment? Surely not, right? Nobody would stoop to that, right? Surely nobody would yadda-yadda-yadda the best part!
Ladies and germs, and children of all ages, I kid you not when I tell you that is precisely what Hensman does, right in the opening salvo of the introduction of the book. For what is obscured by the ellipses but the following words: “that is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want”.** The “supporting powers to the opposition” is helpfully defined in the original intelligence report as “The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey”. And what does Milne in fact emphasize in the 10th paragraph of his piece? Exactly the words in the intelligence report that Hensman skips with ellipses and which give an adequate basis for Milne’s remark that the report’s author “effectively welcomes” the establishment of a Salafist state in eastern Syria.
Hensman’s surgical removal, notably outrageous, would be familiar to Orwell’s Winston Smith from the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Smith’s job, it will be recalled, was to cut small but crucial phrases out of archived official reports so as to stuff those unwanted words down the “memory hole,” erasing them from history. As with the rest of Hensman’s targets, Milne is utterly condemned, for he “avoids mentioning the pro-democracy uprising,” thus “helping to cover up the the mass murder unleashed by Bashar al-Assad” (Hensman, 11).
Filling out the list of those likewise dispatched are James Petras, Julian Assange, Max Blumenthal, Michel Chossudovsky and organizations like Stop the War Coalition and Code Pink. Basically, the venom is reserved for anyone who opposed the US bombings of Kosovo, Libya, and Syria. The attacks on all these targets evidence the same style of stunningly casual and evidence-free dismissal.
Then there is the rather lurid streak of Cold War anti-communist hysteria to be noted. In surveying today’s anti-war movement Hensman perceives communist treachery therein: “The involvement of Stalinists and the use of former Comintern networks explain how these warmongers in anti-war clothing pop up all over the world.” (80) There is, however, some innovation in the familiar trope of a devilish far left conspiracy, since Hensman adds an interesting contemporary twist. Today, these no-good un-American commies are allied with Vladimir Putin in his anti-American propaganda efforts and are thus in league with none other than Donald Trump. This is evidenced by the fact that Trump receives “kid-glove treatment” (18) from their likes. (As elsewhere, Hensman is vague about who merits such gross smears. Just Pilger? Or Pilger and Chossudovsky? All “pseudo-anti-imperialists”? The claims are often nebulous as well as evidence-free.)
Equally jarring and dated is reference to an alleged Soviet policy of “genocide” in the Ukraine in 1932-33; that is, the claim that Stalin engineered a famine to punish Ukrainian peasants. While this is a common remark among hardened conservative intellectuals, modern scholarship does not accept that Ukrainians were targeted in a genocide. Rather, the post-Cold War opening of Soviet archives revealed an unplanned but foreseeable famine caused by the disastrous agricultural policies of collectivization combined with crop failure and which occurred in most parts of the Soviet Union, with the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and parts of Russia seeing the worst of it.
But it is not only the left which receives such an amateur drubbing from Hensman. A simple gauge of the seriousness of the inquiry is the casual treatment given to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, known as R2P. Hensman (quite properly) rejects R2P, although the idea receives only a single sentence of consideration and is tersely dismissed as “nebulous” (303). The source cited is a 3,000-word summary/chronology of the efforts of R2P advocates in various UN organizations and conferences, with said article to be found on the website of an R2P advocacy organization. But, since that organization does not anywhere state that their cherished R2P is “nebulous,” this criticism is equivalent to claiming the Beatles were a gang of tuneless squawkers while citing as a source the Fab Four’s own fan club. These and other scholarly shortcomings would make an astute second-year college student cringe.
Hensman’s book belongs in a subgenre of establishment-friendly kicks to the shins of the left. Attacks of this sort can expect a boost from most of the ideological spectrum, who don’t let a little thing like evidence get in the way of a good trashing of radical thinkers. However, they have no value for honest leftists who insist on evidence to support outrageous accusation. What evidence there is to be found in Indefensible is all testimony to Hensman’s bad faith.
* All page references in Hensman as well as di Giovanni refer to the EPUB format of the respective books, converted to PDF.
** The full text of that section thus reads:
“C. IF THE SITUATION UNRAVELS THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME, WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE STRATEGIC DEPTH OF THE SHIA EXPANSION (IRAQ AND IRAN).
“D. THE DETERIORATION OF THE SITUATION HAS DIRE CONSEQUENCES ON THE IRAQI SITUATION …” (See www.judicialwatch.org for pdf.)
(As for Milne’s comments on the leaked intelligence report, they are not without issues. He almost certainly makes too much of the report, supposing it to be an accurate exemplar of elite thinking. To this writer, the leaked report reads like a Stratfor-style boiler plate intelligence memo: it largely propagates established doctrine, along with the occasional valuable insight. There is no indication who wrote it, how widely it was read, nor what responses it elicited, if any. It therefore cannot be cited as sufficient evidence that “the US and its allies… were prepared to countenance the creation of [the Islamic State] … as a buffer to weaken Syria.” This is, of course, separate from Milne’s correct claim that the writer of the intelligence report basically welcomed the creation of a Salafist state and saw it as a strategic asset for the US and its allies.)